Switch only to a specific window in a background application

MissionControlIconXIf your computing habits are anything like mine, after a few hours of work you will end up with a plethora of windows open in various applications. You may have a number of different Safari windows open, along with your workflow and notes organized in TextEdit, half-composed e-mail messages, PDFs and other images open in Preview, and various utilities open. Needless to say, after a while you might simply run out of screen real estate to view your documents, so things begin to overlap significantly, if not completely.

Given OS X’s multi-tasking services like Expose and command-tab to switch between open programs, you can switch to the application of your choice; however, with a cluttered workflow you might run into various frustrations when attempting to view specific windows from more than one application at a time. For example, when using one of your many TextEdit windows for taking notes, and might wish to write down something you’re looking at in a specific Safari window. With both applications having windows covering your screen, using Command-Tab or clicking on icons in the Dock will have one application cover the other, requiring you to shuffle windows around.

Granted this may be indication to reconsider cluttering your desktop; however, there are a couple of ways to switch only to the window of your choosing in another application, instead of all windows currently open in that application.

Mission Control

Apple’s Mission Control feature allows you to see an overview of all windows from all open applications, and can be activated using a hotkey, hot corner, or trackpad gesture set up in the system preferences. When viewing windows in Mission Control, the foremost window in each application will be on top of the window grouping for that application. You can also hover your mouse over the grouping and then scroll up to expand and reveal more of the windows in the group.

With this routine, you can quickly select a desired window:

  1. Activate Mission Control
  2. Hover your mouse over the desired window so it highlights
  3. Click the window to bring it to the front

Note that if you click the window group’s application icon in Mission Control, then all windows from that application will be brought to the front, but just clicking one window will only bring it to the front.

The Dock

Another option for selecting a specific window from a background application is to use the Dock. By right-clicking a Dock icon, or by clicking and holding the icon for a couple of seconds, you will see a contextual menu appear that among options for quitting and hiding the application, shows a list of all documents currently open in that application. The foremost document in that application will have a check next to it, and you can choose this, or any in the list, to switch to this application but only bring the specified window to the foreground.

Recent Items

Finally, if the windows you are cycling through are documents you have recently opened, then you can access them from the Recent Items section of the Apple menu. Unfortunately this will not work for windows for non-existent windows, such as new and unsaved documents, or browser windows, but it can be a quick way to reveal a buried document that you just opened, without having to shuffle through windows or activate Mission Control.